The Mingan Island Cetacean Study (MICS) conducts research on populations of blue, humpback, fin, and minke whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. MICS is best known for being the first organization in the world to have carried out long term studies of the blue whale.
We use photo-identification techniques to recognize individual baleen whales enabling us to create a sighting history of known animals. Each year, newly photo-identified individuals are added to the photographic catalogue. We are the curator of the North Atlantic Blue Whale catalogues, one for the western and one for the eastern North Atlantic. Researchers, sailors, whale-watchers from all over the Atlantic send MICS their pictures, which contributes to a better understanding of the migration, seasonal movements and habitat use of this elusive and endangered species. The western North Atlantic encompasses the waters along the eastern seaboard and North to Davis Strait between Canada and Greenland. Since 1979 we have identified over 475 individual blue whales in this region. The eastern North Atlantic catalogue includes over 350 animals as of 2013, the pictures come from numerous places, including Iceland, East Greenland, Ireland, Spitsbergen, Jan Mayen, Azores, Canaries, Spain and Mauretania. We still know very little concerning summer-winter migrations and the movements between regions. Thus far only three long-range matches have been found: one from Iceland to Azores, one from Iceland to Mauritania and one from the Azores to Spitsbergen, while there have been no matches between the eastern and western North Atlantic. Furthermore, it is not known whether or not blue whales undergo the textbook north-south migration assumed for baleen whales or if they have designated breeding and calving grounds as do right, gray and humpback whales.
Photo-identification helps to define migration and movement patterns, but its main use is to follow individuals throughout their lives by creating sighting histories. We can learn how many calves a female has in her lifetime and when a former female calf reaches sexual maturity and has its own offspring (called age at sexual maturity). MICS studies the reproduction of blue whales in the Gulf of California, Mexico, which is one of the very few known blue whale nursing grounds. These animals summer off the west Coast of the United States and Canada. Since 1983 we have identified over 450 blue whales, including over 70 calves. We learned that females reach reproductive age at 10 years or more and can have a calf every 2.5 years. We do not have this information for blue or fin whales in the North Atlantic, since they mostly arrive in mid summer, when the calves have already been weaned after 6-7 months of nursing. Female humpback whales nurse their calves for up to 11 months, and therefore we can estimate reproductive parameters in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Here, they have a calf every 3.5 years and females start reproducing at the age of 10-13 years.
Photo-identification allows us to estimate the size of populations, estimate survival rates (mortality) and population trends. It was MICS that estimated the first survival rates for blue and fin whales based on such sighting data. We were also the first to show that male and female humpback whales have a different survival/mortality and linked this to elevated costs of reproduction, something typical in polygynous species, but not shown for any baleen whales species.
Humpback whales are the most popular baleen whales species, well known for their surface-active behaviours. Humpback whale observation is facilitated by the fact that they occur generally closer to coasts and are easier to study than the more pelagic blue or fin whales. Humpback whales have well known breeding grounds, often in warm subtropical and tropical waters near island groups such as Hawaii, the West Indies (Caribbean) and Cape Verde Islands. In spring humpback whales migrate from their Caribbean wintering grounds to several feeding aggregations in the North Atlantic such as Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Gulf of Maine, Labrador/Newfoundland and Gulf of St. Lawrence. This species gains a high fidelity to these regions, because as a calf they are first introduced to that specific region by their mothers the year they are born. This so called maternal directed site-fidelity is even found in their genes. Since 1979 MICS has identified over 840 humpback whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. These animals are also part of the North Atlantic Humpback Whale catalogue curated by Allied Whale in Bar Harbor, Maine, which at the moment contains over 7,700 individuals.
Fin whales are the third largest baleen whale species summering in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. As with blue whales, it is assumed that they migrate south in the winter, but some evidence exists that they might just stay outside the pack ice and winter off the Scotian shelf. They are among the fastest species traveling at speeds of up to 40 km/h. In contrast to the more solitary blue whales, they form large groups during summer, which form, split and reform with regularity. Fin whale stock structure is not well understood. The animals in the St. Lawrence could be part of a larger population found along the eastern seaboard, however, there is some evidence that these animals form separate stock. MICS recently estimated the number of fin whales in the St. Lawrence at around 350 animals, though indicating a negative trend. During the last years the number of dead animals reported has increased, and though unclear, it is possible that these deaths are correlated with increased maritime traffic.
Minke whales, the smallest rorqual whales are probably the most numerous in the St. Lawrence. They are still hunted by whalers off Iceland and Norway, however, we still know very little about this species. One problem is that their pigmentation pattern is much more subtle compared to other species. While we can identify every single blue, fin and humpback whale, we cannot do so reliably with minke whales. What we do know is that they are the only known rorqual species that shows a strong sex-based segregation in their distribution. In the Gulf of St Lawrence we see 1 male for every 6 females. Another particularity is that we very rarely observe calves, suggesting that they are weaned before the females enter our research area.
To identify individual blue whales we take photographs of the pigmentation patterns on both flanks. Because of their length, two pictures of each flank are needed. The first picture covers the blowhole to mid body and the second from mid body to dorsal fin. Pigmentation patterns vary from light gray on a predominantly dark gray background pigment to the inverse where a dark gray pattern stands. We take both sides, because the pigmentation pattern is symmetric but not identical on both sides.
This is in contrast to the fin whale, where the pigmentation pattern is asymmetric. Fin whales have a strikingly contrasted lower jaw, white on the right to black on the left. The pigmentation pattern of the head and shoulders of the right side is more distinctive that on the left side, and so, as for blue whales we take one picture of the front and one of the dorsal area of each animal.
The humpback whale is identified using the pigmentation of the ventral surface of the fluke. The color can vary from completely black to completely white, with myriad variations in-between. It is the easiest whale species to recognize.
Minke whales are much more difficult in comparison. Although they do have some pigmentation on their sides, it is very subtle and mostly visible after the final breath as they round out to dive exposing more of their sides. Because taking such ID images is difficult, we predominantly take pictures of the dorsal fin. Limited in this manner, we cannot identify all individuals as easily as with the other species, and have to estimate the proportion of animals carrying recognizable marks.
Research leapt forward at the end of the 1980s, when we began taking biopsy skin samples. Skin biopsies taken in conjunction with photo-identification provide us the sex and genetic code of individuals, and enabled us to better understand social structure, reproduction, and eventually the genealogy of each species studied.
Skin samples can also be used to determine each individual's prey consumption. Using stable isotopes, lab analysis can indicate at which trophic level different species are feeding, which is important in understanding competition between species.
Because certain pollutants are lipid-soluble and accumulate in blubber over time, blubber collected in biopsy samples can be analyzed for concentrations of persistent contaminants such as PCBs, pesticides, and dioxins, amongst others. Certain of these substances, now banned in North America, have been found to cause severe health problems. By monitoring the levels of these substances in the animals we study, we can gain a better understanding of the degree of pollution in their habitat.
Blubber can also be used to determine pregnancy rates using hormones (progesterone), as well as testosterone and stress hormone levels. The latter are part of ongoing research projects, and skill in interpreting some aspects of the data are still being developed. An overview of current field projects is given below.
These samples are taken by firing a specially designed bolt and tip from a crossbow. The bolt is mounted by a stainless steel or titanium tip containing three retaining prongs, which penetrates the animal and holds the sample taken. A specially designed foam-rubber stopper keeps the tip from penetrating deeper than epithelial tissue and allows the bolt to rebound and float for easy retrieval. The tip is disinfected with alcohol before each use and every tip is used only once to avoid any chance of infection or cross DNA contamination. We usually obtain between 18 and 25 mm skin and blubber for each. Multiple worldwide studies have been conducted, without negative effect on the study species. Some individuals react to boat approaches and sometimes the bolt strike, but resume their previous behaviour within minutes. In fact humpback whales sometimes react more to misses than to actual hits.
Stainless steel tip and foam-rubber stopper (yellow)